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Opinion The Virginia GOP should lead on marijuana reform

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Here’s to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for showing Virginia Republicans how they might be able to embrace marijuana reform.

Just to be clear: McConnell isn’t pushing a breakthrough federal marijuana bill. Instead, he’s doing something almost as important with industrial hemp. The product has a wide variety of uses and applications but has long been on the federal naughty list. McConnell used his place on the conference committee shaping the federal farm bill to get hemp off that list and back into legal production.

For McConnell, the move tics a few boxes: Hemp can replace tobacco as a cash crop for Kentucky farmers, and the United States can ease up on its hemp imports. And he plans to make legalizing hemp production a big part of his 2020 reelection bid.

So that’s all good for McConnell and his Kentucky constituents. What does it have to do with Virginia Republicans?

It shows they were on to something when they made those earlier steps allowing hemp to be grown and harvested for research purposes — and much more if federal law allowed it.

If the president agrees, then the law will change. Good — because that means Virginia farmers can now get back into the business George Washington knew well.

But Virginia Republicans should look beyond hemp toward its more potent — and illegal — cousin: marijuana.

Ideally, they would legalize it for medical and recreational use as voters have done in states such as California, Colorado, Maine and Michigan or as the Vermont legislature did in 2018.

Or they could opt to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, as West Virginia and Maryland did.

The General Assembly approved the use of cannabidiol oils in 2018, and that qualified as a major step toward a more humane drug policy.

But even that advance wasn’t without its hang-ups, as patients and their doctors are required to leap through a number of byzantine hoops to obtain treatment.

The obstacles are much higher elsewhere. Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) toyed with the idea in the 2018 session, proposing a very modest marijuana decriminalization bill for first-time offenders.

He withdrew it from consideration.

A somewhat robust decriminalization measure from Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) was defeated in the Senate’s Courts of Justice Committee. He will try again when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

Norment should locate his inner Mitch McConnell and either join forces with Ebbin — scrambling narratives across Capitol Square — or bring his own decriminalization measure to the floor and fight for it.

It’s not everything a marijuana reformer could want. But it’s a start. And given the headlines, a modest bow to decriminalization in 2019 could lead to much bigger things.

Consider: Richmond-based Altria is taking a 45 percent stake in Canadian cannabis marketer Cronos Group. Altria is also leaving the vaping business, seeing that the future lies in legal marijuana, not nicotine. Other corporations looking at getting into the marijuana business: Constellation Brands, Molson Coors, Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

If the corporate world is moving that way, can Republicans be far behind?

Of course they can.

This is the same crowd that, in a fit of moral panic, made allergy sufferers the latest pawns in the drug war.

Still, we can hold out a bit of hope for Virginia Republicans. They’ve done the right thing on industrial hemp. They’ve made a good effort on cannabidiol.

Now they just need to embrace McConnell’s hemp-fueled zeal and go him one better.

They can start with decriminalization. That’s good policy, and it may be as far as a bare minimum of Republican lawmakers are willing to go.

But Republicans must start thinking bigger. The private sector is doing so, and Democrats are already staking out the political ground. Best get busy, folks, or risk being left to defend an increasingly irrelevant — and losing — policy.